Independent counsel is worth saving

Drastic overhaul: The law's serious flaws must be remedied to restore public confidence.

February 24, 1999

KENNETH W. STARR has poisoned the well for future independent counsels. His excessive zeal has even sparked bipartisan support for letting the independent counsel law expire this summer.

That would be unwise. Though the law is badly flawed, a rewritten statute could rebuild public confidence in government's ability to investigate itself responsibly.

Mr. Starr wasn't the first independent counsel to overreach. Many question another special prosecutor's unsuccessful indictment of former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy for accepting Super Bowl tickets. Also controversial has been a third special prosecutor's pursuit of former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Henry G. Cisneros on charges he lied about how much money he gave his former mistress.

Dubious investigations have been going on since the independent counsel law was enacted in 1978. There are no checks on these special prosecutors' conduct or the scope of their inquiries. They can spend as much as the want, take as long as they want and not account for their actions.

The aim of the law, inspired by the Watergate scandal, was to provide for investigation of serious allegations against top officials without partisan influence. But independent prosecutors distorted the measure's intent. Even the appointment process of the three-judge panel to oversee these prosecutors has been compromised.

An overhaul is needed. Future independent counsels should be restricted to tightly focused investigations. They should be held to the same standards as other federal prosecutors. Time limits and budgetary limits must be imposed.

The attorney general should have more discretion in deciding what level of investigation is appropriate. An inspector general or the Justice Department's ethics office can handle most complaints impartially. In other cases, the department should enlist its senior career prosecutor.

Since these posts are insulated from politics, an independent counsel should be needed only in rare cases. At that stage, the attorney general ought to have a say in the selection. Only veteran prosecutors should be eligible.

No prosecutor should conduct unlimited fishing expeditions that threaten individual rights. The excesses of Starr & Co. persuaded the American Bar Association -- which crusaded for passage of the original independent counsel law -- to vote overwhelmingly in favor of abolishing this statute. While such sentiment is understandable, it goes too far.

Let's keep an independent counsel law on the books, but with a targeted mandate and built-in accountability. Let's give the attorney general more investigative options. Appointing an independent counsel should be reserved for only the most serious allegations against those at government's highest levels.

Pub Date: 2/24/99

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